Science Talk

Michael C. Hall Analyzes His Dexter's Mind, Part 2

Actor Michael C. Hall, TV's Dexter, talks with psychologist Kevin Dutton, author of The Wisdom of Psychopaths, at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City

Podcast Transcription

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Steve Mirsky:            Steve Mirsky here.  Welcome back for Part 2 of the conversation between psychologist and author Kevin Dutton and actor Michael C. Hall, TV’s blood-spatter expert and suppressor, Dexter, recorded at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City.  You’ll also hear Tim McHenry, the Rubin’s Director of Public Programs and Performance.  Again, the Rubin specializes in the art and culture of Himalayan Asia, which is why Buddhist issues come up in the context of the conversation.     

Kevin Dutton:            A lot of people say to me, “Well, what’s it like being around a psychopath?”  Now you’ve been around, you’ve done your research and you’ve been around some of these - some of these - guys.

Michael C. Hall:            I’ve - I’ve, like I said, I’ve watched some documentaries, read some books, transcripts of interviews but I didn’t seek out any actual psychopaths [crosstalk] --

Kevin Dutton:            Okay.

Michael C. Hall:            because I thought it might throw me off my game. 

Kevin Dutton:            Yeah, okay.

Michael C. Hall:            I mean it might freak me out. 

Kevin Dutton:            Yeah, that’s a fair point, yeah.


Michael C. Hall:            So I didn’t, yeah.

Kevin Dutton:            Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Michael C. Hall:            You know?

Kevin Dutton:            Okay, when you’re around these guys there is a really palpable vibe.  They do have an aura and it’s the same aura.  I’ve also done quite a lot of work with Special Forces soldiers, many of whom who are actually along the psychopathic spectrum, quite far along the psychopathic spectrum.  They are ruthless, they are fearless, they are focused and mentally tough and for obvious reasons but the vibe that you get when you’re around psychopaths is very similar to the vibe you get around Special Forces soldiers and that there is - don’t get me wrong here, there’s - a real sense of positivity, of anything’s possible.  These are guys with no moral brakes, okay? 

It’s like driving a car with no brakes, you know?  If you’ve got a really fast road, it’s fantastically thrilling but the problem is that these guys - and one of these guys actually said this to me when I interviewed him, he said, “You know, what you’re saying is the car’s too good for the road,” and it’s very true.  Psychopaths, in a sense, have got all these positive qualities but they’ve got too much of a good thing.  They’ve got all of these qualities turned up to max and so when you meet these guys there is a sense of anything’s possible, you know?  If you say, “Well, you know, we all come up with reasons not to do things” but actually when you’re around these guys, it’s, like, well, you know, why not, you know?


Kevin Dutton:            That’s the kind of default setting.

Michael C. Hall:            Yeah.

Kevin Dutton:            “Why not” and that’s actually really refreshing.


Michael C. Hall:            Because they’re not infused with or invested in negative possibilities [crosstalk] --

Kevin Dutton:            That’s exactly right

Michael C. Hall:            or potentialities. 

Kevin Dutton:            Yeah, yeah.

Michael C. Hall:            It’s just like, “Ehh, it doesn’t matter.” 

Kevin Dutton:            And we can all - in everyday life, we can all - we can all do that.  I mean, in simple situations like if you’re at work and you wanna put in for a raise, you know, most of us think, “Oh, well, I don’t really wanna do that because what if I don’t get it?  What will the boss think of me if I don’t get it?  What will my fellow employees think of me if I don’t get it?”  Well, you know, folks, psychopath art.


Kevin Dutton:            Just go, just go, focus on the benefits of getting that, right?

Michael C. Hall:            Yeah.

Kevin Dutton:            You know and actually just go for it and don’t think of - and of course what you get then is you get that confidence, Michael.  You get that kind of confidence and the more confident you are, the more chances ironically that you actually have of getting it, you know?

Michael C. Hall:            Yeah and confidence in that sense isn’t necessarily about believing that the outcome will be positive, it’s not caring if it’s negative. 

Kevin Dutton:            That’s exactly right. 

Michael C. Hall:            It’s not being invested in that. 

Kevin Dutton:            Absolutely right, just don’t focus on the negative, on the negative side effects and that’s what psychopaths are very good at.  Sometimes they don’t focus on the negatives and they get things completely wrong so that’s why psychopaths are extremely cool under pressure when the rest of us might be terrified because, actually, they’re just focused on the reward that they’re getting.  That’s why in the Second World War, a colleague of mine has a theory that a lot of great fighter pilots actually were very high along the psychopathic spectrum.  These were guys that flew very dangerous missions despite the fact that actually they could be killed and these guys had great kill ratios so, you know, this kind of focus on the reward doesn’t really work in certain professions.  The other thing is next time that you’re faced with a difficult situation, you know, just think to yourself, “Well, what would I do if it didn’t really matter that much to me,” okay? 
So you know this is something that Dexter could tell you.  I mean you know just kinda what - if I wasn’t frightened, if I wasn’t so damn frightened what would I do, and then when you just taken a step back and thought about that, well, just do it, you know?  Just - the Nike slogan - “Just Do It,” you know?


Kevin Dutton:            So that’s another way that people can kinda use that Dexter mindset, I think, in everyday life. 

Michael C. Hall:            Make it work for you.


Kevin Dutton:            Yeah.


Kevin Dutton:            The Dexter Manifesto, I think. 

Michael C. Hall:            Yeah, I’ve been wondering what I’m gonna do when Dexter is over and I think maybe it’d be like self-help book.

Kevin Dutton:            I think you should.


Michael C. Hall:            Do a little [crosstalk] --

Kevin Dutton:            I think I beat you to it there.

Michael C. Hall:            [Laughter] You’re right, yeah.

Kevin Dutton:            I think you should come to Oxford and be a psychologist, I think. 

Michael C. Hall:            Yeah, you wanna do it together, 50/50?

Kevin Dutton:            Yeah, we can do that!

Michael C. Hall:            70/30.

Kevin Dutton:            70/30, yeah.


Kevin Dutton:            [Laughter]

Tim:            Of course Michael could become a Buddhist monk.  That seems like a possibility.


Michael C. Hall:            [Laughter]

Tim:            So now is the real test of who the psychopaths in the room are and you shouldn’t fear rejection of your question.  Be totally confident and focused.  We’ve got microphones on either side of the house so raise your hand if you want to ask a question and we’ll try and get to as many as possible.  Yes, Nancy?

Nancy:            Hi, I want to talk about something that you have not spoken about at all and the fact that Dexter has a son, [crosstalk] --

Michael C. Hall:            Yes.

Nancy:            which drives me crazy, as a mother.

Kevin Dutton:            See, Psychopath Number 1, she’s all of a piece. 

Nancy:            How is possible that he has this son, although he’s always shipped off to Orlando, [crosstalk] --

Michael C. Hall:            Right.

Nancy:            which also drives me crazy but it’s, like, you know, does he really have the capacity to love this kid and plus when he was loving Rita, did he really, you know, what [crosstalk] --

Michael C. Hall:            Did he really?

Kevin Dutton:            Right.

Nancy:            How compartmentalized is that?

Michael C. Hall:            I think the fact that he was married and the fact that those kinds of questions make you crazy is a part of what I like about the show that - no, that - and that intrigues me about the character and maybe you could speak about this but I think he is interested in understanding what human emotion is and what genuine connection is.  I don’t know that he quite feels but I think it’s a fundamental part of what - or it’s the fundamental part of what - doesn’t allow him to continue to tell himself or anyone else that he’s not real.  I mean he’s not made of circuits and wires.  He’s a flesh-and-blood person and there’s this evidence of that.  It’s also something he - that really does a number on his desire to control his environment or his world or his person because he - can control himself and what’s inside but now that there’s - and I mean, I think, as a parent, maybe you could relate to that, this sense that all of a sudden there’s this person for whom you’re responsible and you can’t control them in the same way that you control yourself but, yeah, as far as the fact that he’s conveniently absent from the scene for weeks on end that’s really a question for the writers.

Tim:            Let’s take somebody on the other side of the house, thank you.

Audience:            Yeah, this has been a lot of fun so I have a question about nature-versus-nurture.  I think it’s really interesting that, in Dexter, correct me if I’m wrong, but he’s turned into a psychopath by seeing his mom chopped up in front of him and so is his brother and so I wonder if that’s sort of deliberate on the part of the show and, Kevin, I guess the question for you is what’s the evidence that psychopaths are born versus made? 

Kevin Dutton:            Okay, shall I take that one [crosstalk] --?

Michael C. Hall:            Yes, please.

Kevin Dutton:            Okay.


Michael C. Hall:            All right.

Kevin Dutton:            It’s a great question.  There’s evidence to suggest that there is a genetic component to psychopathy.  The evidence hovers around about 50-percent genetic component and a 50-percent environmental component but when we talk about whether it’s nature or nurture, the argument has kind of moved on a little bit from that.  It’s a little bit more complex.  There’s now a sub-discipline of genetics called epigenetics and this is another way in which the “Dexter” show is ultra-real, it’s really founded in scientific fact, and that is that imagine that - well, you could have a psychopathic gene. 

Let’s just simplify it and say it’s one gene.  It’s not.  It’s a whole conglomeration of genes.  Let’s say you’ve got a psychopathic gene.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re gonna be a psychopath. 

What that means is you have the propensity to be a psychopath but you need environmental triggers to maybe set that gene off.  Now those environmental triggers are almost invariably traumatic childhoods, okay?  So we’ve got the Dexter scenario right there so either abuse or a traumatic scene or violence or something like a traumatic experience in childhood.  Now this always gets a bit complicated but I have an analogy to use to explain this.  Imagine that our genes are like the text in a book, okay, and that book is lying closed on a library shelf, okay? 

Now that information - that text - is not going to come alive.  It’s not going to have any impact if that book remains closed.  It’s only going to work if someone comes and opens that book and reads it so, for the person opening the book and reading, that’s the environmental trigger, okay?  So that’s what makes the information come live.

Tim:            Now another question here.

Audience:            Yes, hi.  My question is about - first of all I think you’re phenomenal but my question is about - Dexter’s relationship with his father [crosstalk] --

Michael C. Hall:            Yes.

Audience:            and what is it in him, given who he is, that he wants to - even after his father is gone - seek his father’s approval and, along the same lines, if that’s the case, what allowed him to throw out the code and the blood slides, this last episode?

Michael C. Hall:            Well, I think what allowed him to do that was there are a lot of things alive in him but if anything trumps anything else it might be self-preservation and I think he recognized that if he continued to collect those trophies that it would make him that much more vulnerable and I think that getting rid of them also coincides with the desire to be a grownup and to relinquish childish things and, as far as Dexter’s father goes, I mean, that’s - he has -- this internalized relationship with his father that I guess I can relate to -- my father passed away when I was young - and it’s really not his father anymore, it’s him.  It’s a conversation he’s having with himself, you know?  We tell ourselves stories about who we’re talking to but it’s really just us and I think he seems to thrive on some sort of internal conflict.  He has a desire to lean against something and he, perhaps, resents that the thing that’s kept him safe is something that was given him, you know?  He wants to own himself in a way that he can’t quite do because his father gave him this code so he has, many times over, learned the lesson that adhering to it is the right thing to do but there’s this simultaneous desire to rebel against it and lean against it and the relationship, the internal relationship he has with his father never really lands. 

It’s always swinging back and forth.  I don’t know if that really answers your question but as far as the nurture side of things for Dexter you could argue that, without Harry, Dexter would’ve become like his brother and would’ve killed indiscriminately or you could argue that while he experienced a real trauma with his mother’s murder that the real abuse was done by his father.  I like the world of the show in as much as there are all these coins with flipsides and both arguably true and, given time, sometimes simultaneously. 

Tim:            I’ve got question right over there.

Audience:            Thank you.  I love your show and I watch it, religiously.  I find it interesting the correlation between addiction, which we haven’t really discussed too much and Dexter’s character and also I guess it’s a two-parter for you both, how much does Dexter rely on the addiction side of what he does, in and out, and is that breakable and, outside of the realm of psychopathic tendencies, and have you ever really studied the psychopath’s brain versus the addict’s brain and do they correlate so that - and - if an addiction is broken, can you unwind that behavior? 

Kevin Dutton:            Yeah, there has been work done looking at psychopathy and addiction.  Addiction:  Psychopaths do get very addicted to substances and that actually comes right back to something that I touched upon earlier.  It comes back to the fact that psychopaths are extremely reward-driven, okay?  They are extremely focused on the positives from getting the rewards so, on the basis of that it wouldn’t be too difficult to predict that actually psychopaths would possess more of an addictive personality than others and when we look at psychopaths, especially the kind of the less-intelligent psychopaths, the ones with the lower IQ, become more addicted.  There is a real prevalence of addiction and substance abuse within -- especially alcoholism and drug abuse within - psychopaths. 

Now there was a wonderful study done not so long ago, a couple of years ago, which looked at what happens in the brains of psychopaths compare dot the brains of normal people when they are given positive stimuli so the researchers put psychopaths in a brain scanner and they put a load of - bunch of - normal people in the brain scanner, and they gave them a shot of speed - amphetamine, okay - and they wondered.  They looked at what happened.  Now we know that the reward circuits of the brain - again, not to get too technical with you but the circuits that drive pleasure and reward in our brain - are run by a neurochemical and neurotransmitter called dopamine.  It’s the dopamine circuit and so what you would predict, if psychopaths really were more reward-driven, when they get a shot of the amphetamine or of the speed, there should be more activity in that dopamine-run brain circuit compared to normal people, and that is exactly what the research has found.  In fact the activity in the psychopath’s dopamine reward circuit was four times greater than it was in the circuits of the normal people who were given a shot of amphetamine.  I wanted to sign up for that study, funnily enough but I’m not sure which camp I would fall in but, actually, yeah, there is that. 

The very fact that psychopaths are reward-driven makes them far more prone to addictive kinds of behaviors than non-psychopaths and, of course, that also gives them their focus that we were talking about earlier, Michael, you know?  Dexter’s kind of drivenness, you know?  That, itself is an addiction, you know?

Michael C. Hall:            Yeah, and I think Dexter is definitely on an addictive cycle with his particular indulgence and has certainly given over to the first step.  He definitely recognizes his powerlessness and there seems to be no hope that he’s going to be rehabilitated. 

Tim:            I think we should return to the Bering Strait analogy and make a very clear distinction I think between psychopaths and Buddhist monks because a Buddhist monk, for example, would regard any sort of addiction as an attachment and, of course, their role is to abjure attachment [crosstalk] --

Kevin Dutton:            Sure, yeah.

Tim:            in any shape or form but what they do share is it seems -- and this word has come up a lot, even in the questions - is focus, and focus seems in the result of at least three of the sessions that we’ve had so far in this series, focus delivers a form of contentment and happiness.  Can you speak to that?

Kevin Dutton:            I think that’s absolutely right.  Yeah, I think that one of the things that Buddhists and psychopaths both have is that focus.  Now I’ve just actually come back - as I was saying to you, I’ve just come back -- from a trip to Dharamsala, which is in Northern India where you have - it’s the - Seat of the Dalai Lama and it’s basically there’s a very large Tibetan community there and it’s very strange, actually, because I went up and tested these expert Buddhist meditator monks, high, high in the mountains, and one of the things that I asked them was, “If I want to be happier in my life, what should I do,” and, almost to a man, they all said that actually focusing on the impermanence of life, focusing on the fact that we could be gone tomorrow, is a great kind of concentrator of the mind on getting rid of material possessions, getting rid of attachments.  Now I think the difference between psychopaths and Buddhist monks - that’s not to say that there aren’t some psychopathic Buddhist monks [laughter] thought not that I came across there but I didn’t test for that [laughter] but one of the things that we find is that actually focusing, psychopaths tend to be very mindful.  That’s another they have in common with Buddhist monks because they - the impermanence of existence is something that psychopaths - also feel, you know? 

Psychopaths have a devil-may-care attitude to life, here-today-gone-tomorrow so they’re not that different, in that respect, to Buddhist but the difference between psychopaths and Buddhist monks is that Buddhist monks live in the moment and they savor that moment.  Psychopaths live in the moment and they seize it.  They seize for all it’s worth.  They seize it for their own personal gratification.  They squeeze ever last drop of gratification out of every second whereas a Buddhist monk lives in the - an expert Buddhist monk mediator lives in the - moment but doesn’t squeeze it out, it’s they savor it so that Bering Strait analogy I think works. 

Again they’re very close but they both live in the moment.  They both don’t have many attachments but they have completely different kind of takes on it.

Tim:            We have time for maybe three questions.  Oh goodness, all right.

Audience:            Kind of a follow-up to the sort of Bering Strait and the Buddhist monks, one of the things you mentioned, back to, like, the lizard-brain idea is that psychopaths don’t have insight into, like, their ability to, like, detect weakness or to detect the handkerchief or whatever it - so when you’re talking about the monks and the microexpressions and that lie detection, do they have insight into that?  Can they unpack for you what they’re doing when they’re breaking or slowing time down or how they perceive it? 

Kevin Dutton:            They don’t, no.  They don’t have any insight into, like, slowing time down.  What we did discover was the Buddhist monks would say something like - and quite a few of them said this, they would say something like - “I can tell that this person has a deep inner pain and therefore I believe that they’re telling the truth” as opposed to maybe the people who were faking it and they would say, “No, there doesn’t seem to be a real pain there” but precisely what they were looking at, in terms of decoding that pain, is different.

Audience:            Yes, my question is what do you think Dexter’s definition of happiness is and is he happy?

Michael C. Hall:            I think that Dexter has moments of happiness or moments of contentment at least, probably immediately following killing someone but they don’t last very long.  I think Dexter has - just as he’s surrendered to his powerlessness regarding his compulsion to kill I think he has - also relinquished any hope for happiness.  I think his idea of contentment or of happiness, rather, would be one in which he wasn’t driven by this compulsion and that’s a part of what makes him kind of a tragic character.

Kevin Dutton:            I’ve met a few psychopaths in my time - one or two of them - and it’s very rare, it’s rare that I’ve met a psychopath that would actually, you know, actually says, “I don’t really wanna be a psychopath.”  Actually, they’re actually quite happy the lot of psychopaths because they just don’t see a problem with it.  They’re very mentally tough, they’re very non-anxious and actually if you think about that, you know, “we don’t have any anxieties, I don’t give a damn what people think of me,” you know, actually that’s not a bad kinda gig to get, really, is it?  Even if - even when - you actually deal with a moral fallback, you know?  We’ve all seen psychopaths in court sentenced to life imprisonment or even death and they just smile nonchalantly, you know? 

That’s the worst possible outcome we could all imagine, you know?  We’d all go to pieces but, you know, you get psychopaths sticking the finger up to the judge and going off laughing, you know, so they are actually very mentally robust, nothing gets them down. 

Michael C. Hall:            I think the story of the show is someone who’s unraveling in a way.  The Dexter who we meet at the very beginning of the series is happy and only when his appetite for something he never thought or imagined possible, his own humanity, is whetted by this emergence of his - of a - character who turns out to be his brother does his whole construct start to unravel and, yeah, he’s happy for a second there. 

Tim:            Hmm, gentlemen, I want to return to this decisive nature of the psychopath and make yet another correlation between those and Buddhist monks because I - actually the number of monks that I’ve met here the museum and elsewhere, in the Himalayas, also showed very little dithering tendencies.  I mean they go straight for what they want and I remember we brought 13 monks over from the Kingdom of Bhutan a few years ago for this Bhutan exhibition and they did demon-subjugation dances all around the city.  These gentlemen had never been on a plane, never been on an elevator, never been on an escalator, you know?  They had never been outside their monastery or, indeed, their country, where those things largely don’t exist, and I remember meeting them at the Y where they were [laughter] staying, right?  Very, very frugal bedding situation but - and I got in the elevator with them and I knew what floor they were supposed to go to but I was there trying to work out which one was 21. 

They were already there, you know?  I mean they had absolute focus and just precision of action, which was amazing to me, even in that small instance. 

Kevin Dutton:            I’ll give you another brain study, Tim, on that, which basically backs up that point.  There was a study, which has been done looking - well, actually a number of studies, it wasn’t the same study and the same pattern of brain-activation has been found in Buddhist monks when they’re making decisions, psychopaths when they’re making decisions under pressure, life-and-death situations, like the train - like the trolley - problem we were talking about earlier and also - and this is the key - the same brain areas are active when you look at experts who - either videogame-player experts or sports people who - are in a state of what’s called flow, when they’re in - and you might’ve heard this term in the media, when they’re in - the zone, when they’re just performing optimally.  The same areas, the same pattern of brain-activation are found in those three kinds of people:  Sports people when they’re in the zone, psychopaths when they’re making decisions under extreme pressure and Buddhist monks when they’re in a state of compassionate meditation.  Same brain links all three, very intriguing.

Steve Mirsky:            Kevin Dutton’s book is The Wisdom of Psychopaths:  What Saints, Spies and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success.  You can get it as your free audiobook by taking advantage of the offer at  Thanks for listening to this psychopath extravaganza.  For all your science news, go to our website,, where you can find Citizen Science, which describes big research efforts that need the eyes, ears and computers of interested people like you and follow us on Twitter, where you’ll a tweet whenever a new article hits the website and our Twitter name is @sciam, S-C-I-A-M.  For Scientific American’s Science Talk, I am Steve Mirsky.  Thanks for clicking on us. 

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